No matter where we are for holidays -Bari or Todi, New York or Rome – there is one constant concern: what to make for dinner or lunch? I’m talking big holidays, like Christmas, Easter or Ferragosto, so usually some piece of roasted meat (or sometimes fish) plays the starring role in any festive menu.
This year, at Sophie’s urging, we decided to go mostly vegetarian at Easter. In other words, besides the obligatory sopressata for antipasto, there would be no roast for the main course. Sophie has been flirting with the idea of becoming vegetarian (or pescatarian, or flexitarian) for a long time now. And she is the first to admit that if guanciale were considered a vegetable, she’d have no trouble sticking to her plans. (is there such a thing as porkatarian?)
We were down in Bari for Easter this year, which is basically vegetable heaven. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but the vegetables just taste better down there. I’m sure much has to do with the fact that since most of Italy’s vegetables are grown down there, they have less distance to travel and so are as fresh as can be. They just taste more intense. And then there are other vegetables that are so regional they never make it out of Puglia.
We decided lasagna would be the main course, but didn’t choose the type until we arrived at the market in Bari on Friday morning. Huge piles of freshly harvested asparagus were the obvious choice. Not only were the pencil thin stalks bright green and plump, they also were incredibly cheap. One Euro a bunch! In Rome the price is at least four times that.
While I could have just made a pure asparagus lasagna, I couldn’t resist the cardoncelli mushrooms. A type of wild mushroom that grows in Puglia, they have recently started to be cultivated as well, but I’ve yet to see them in Rome. I figured they would provide not only some moistness to the baked pasta, but also if I browned them enough, they would add a hint of almost meaty earthiness.
A quick stop at the pasta shop for fresh sheets of lasagna, cut to order to fit into my pan, and I was ready to go.
Since I felt that we were giving up something for this meal (meat) I made sure the lasagna was rich in other ways. In other words I didn’t want to serve up a wimpy and watery veggie laden lasagna. So I made the richest besciamella possible. Whole milk and butter. And to give it even more of an asparagus punch, some broth made from the the tough stalks that would otherwise be thrown away.
After hearty portions of this creamy, buttery pasta no one was missing lamb. In fact, a long walk along the Lungomare ended up taking the place of our main course before we could even begin to think about dessert.
- 1 kilo / 2 pounds asparagus
- 800 grams / 1½ pounds mushrooms
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- olive oil
- 1200 grams / 2.2 pounds fresh lasagna noodles
- 1 cup grated parmigiana
- ½ liter / 2 cups whole milk
- ½ liter / 2 cups asparagus broth
- 100 grams / 3.5 oz butter
- 100 grams / ¾ cup flour
- Wash the asparagus and cut into 1 inch size pieces. Keep the tender, upper part in a bowl, and place the thick, tough stems in a pot. Fill the pot with water to cover the asparagus stems by one inch of water. Add a half tablespoon of kosher salt and bring to a simmer. Cover and let cook for about a half hour. Drain, reserving the asparagus broth, and throwing the stems away, first squeezing out as much broth as possible in a colander.
- Clean the mushrooms off with a brush and trim off the stems. Cut into ½ inch pieces. Pour 1 tablespoon into a large frying pan and heat to medium high. Add the mushrooms, spreading them out in one layer. Let cook at medium high heat without stirring. When the mushrooms start to brown, shake the pan around a bit, but do not stir. For some reason, stirring makes the mushrooms bruise and so turn mushy. You want them to get super brown, almost crispy and start to stick to the pan. At the end, once they are evenly browned, season with salt and pepper, give a stir, and place them in a bowl.
- Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to this pan, and then add the chopped onion and ½ tsp of salt. Let cook until the onion is softened, but don’t let it brown. Stir it with a wooden spoon to scrape up the bits of browned mushroom. Add the asparagus tips and the rest of the tender parts. Stir and cook until the asparagus are tender, adding a bit of water as needed. At the end you want all of the liquid to evaporate. Place in a bowl.
- To make the besciamella heat up the milk and asparagus broth without letting it boil.
- In a small pan melt the butter. Add the flour with a sifter, stirring so that no lumps form. Keep stirring for another five minutes to make sure the flour loses it’s raw taste. Start to add the hot milk mixture, stirring all the while, to avoid lumps. Once all the liquid is incorporated, keep cooking over low heat until it is thickened, about 15 minutes.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
- To assemble:
- Preheat oven to 380F / 190C
- Use a pan measuring about 12 by 10 inches
- Ladle some beciamella into the bottom of the pan, to cover.
- Take a sheet of lasagna and place it in the pot of boiling water. Let it cook for about 45 seconds, if you are using fresh pasta. Carefully remove it with tongs and dry on a clean tea towel. Place the pasta on top of the besciamella.
- Ladle more beciamella on top, then place a third of the asparagus, a third of the mushrooms and a quarter cup of grated parmigiano. Season with salt and pepper.
- Repeat this step two more times and then finish with a layer of pasta, beciamella and grated cheese.
- Place in preheated oven and let cook until browned and bubbling, about 35 minutes.
- Let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.